From a boarding house to a Bentley

For a man who makes a living fixing leaks, it’s fitting that Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins starts every day immersed in water. That’s the water from his indoor swimming pool…

For a man who makes a living fixing leaks, it's fitting that Charlie Mullins, 54, starts every day immersed in water. That's the water from his indoor swimming pool, in which the Pimlico Plumbers founder swims for half an hour every morning before driving into work in London from his home in Bromley in Kent.

"I like water. One reason I swim is because I want to stay fit. It livens you up for the day. But it also makes me realise that everything I'm doing is worth it. Being able to go into my own pool in the morning, I know why I go into work every day."

Mullins grew up in a boarding house in Camden, north London, sharing a bedroom with three brothers and a toilet with the other families in the building. The son of two factory workers, he got his first taste for fixing pipes and fixtures from a local plumber called Bill Ellis. Ellis gave him his first job at the age of nine, paying him two shillings a day. "I used to bunk off school and go work for him," says Mullins. "He seemed to be the only person in the area who had any money. Bundles of money. And he had a car, a Zephyr, which was a lovely car then."

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More importantly, where other plumbers were considered untidy, overly expensive and unreliable, Ellis was dependable and consistent. "If I'm being honest I am still mesmerised by the fact that he got tips, tea and cakes" after every job, says Mullins. "He seemed to have so much respect. If ever the seeds for my future career were sown, it was then."

Mullins left school at 15 and did an apprenticeship in south London before going it alone at the age of 19. Then in 1979, after taking a project with an estate agent in the well-to-do area of Pimlico, home to the Chelsea College of Art, he launched Pimlico Plumbers from a rented basement in Sussex Street, with no more than an old mini van and some tools left over from his last job.

Immediately, he began targeting the more affluent market and by 1982 had a team of five working for him. Realising that "99% of plumbers had a bad name", he began focusing on service. All his staff wore uniforms from day one, with tattoos and earrings banned. "It's a very personal thing going into people's houses, and a lot of people don't understand that. I call it being house-trained."

By 1988, Pimlico was turning over £890,000 a year. But the recession the following year took its toll. It was "extremely difficult. People weren't spending money. If they were spending they were more demanding. They wanted a lot more for their money". However, Mullins learnt a lot from the experience, which helps in the current downturn. "We say to our people now, when it's tough out there you have to give a greater level of service. Get there quicker to tighten the price and let people see that they are getting value for their money."

Last year, Pimlico turned over £13m, a year after Mullins paid himself a million-pound salary for the first time. But despite now driving a Bentley, "I still eat in the same caffs and go to work every day".

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.